The Cunning of Uncertainty, by Helga Nowotny

Flora Samuel on a revelatory call for researchers to embrace context, culture and the unknown

October 15, 2015
Review: The Cunning of Uncertainty, by Helga Nowotny

If, like me, you have never given much thought to the way that we academics attempt to influence the future, despite its being the tacit purpose of all our research, Helga Nowotny’s “exploration of some of the multiple facets of uncertainty” will come as a revelation. It made me realise that my attitude, indeed all our attitudes, to future-gazing is not that far removed from that of Romans staring at the innards of some poor sacrificial cow.

The Cunning of Uncertainty begins with a reminder that “it could be otherwise”, and that how we are now was never a given. The first chapter offers an account of our “Craving for certainty” and the ways that we have tried to predict the future, beginning somewhere near the aforementioned cow. Chapter 2, “The odds for tomorrow”, focuses on prediction, betting, gambling and forecasting and the extremely subtle differences between them – as ever, it is all about context. Nowotny then moves on to “The cunning of promises”, by which we try to annex portions of the future for use today, followed by “Coping with uncertainty” and then, finally, “Embracing uncertainty”, which takes on a refreshingly human dimension with a reflection on parenting and the pleasure of anticipation experienced by children. Perhaps, ultimately, we just have to muddle through.

Nowotny has built her career thinking about science and the nature of knowledge transfer in the contemporary world, and many of the reflections presented here developed during her time as co-founder and, from 2010 to 2013, president of the European Research Council. During that time, she says, she and her colleagues “encountered an administrative culture of control with a very low tolerance of uncertainty” and a focus on pinpointing impact that merely shifted uncertainty “elsewhere”. This observation will, of course, chime with anyone who has experienced the emerging dynamics of a research project, particularly those involving “knowledge exchange” and “innovation”, concepts that still sit so uneasily within an academic framework. For Nowotny, “creativity, while it needs certain conditions to flourish, refuses to become subject to prediction”. At the same time, she is sceptical of our peer review system, which affords “disproportionate credit” to high impact factors and discourages the publication of negative findings that could save a lot of time.

It is very clear that “the linear model of innovation” as “a straight process leading from scientific discovery, through application to successful commercial uptake on the market” is unrealistic. At the same time, perhaps the most successful innovation is taking place among the scientific entrepreneurs who secure funding through the personal relationships of trust with venture capitalists, despite the extremely risky nature of their pursuits.

Nowotny argues that the systematic production of new technologies, which is closely allied to economic performance in the minds of governments, has become “institutionalized and powerful”, causing geographic inequities that shift around the globe. She reminds us, however, that “scientific certainties are carefully couched in the precise terms of the conditions under which they hold. Moreover they are always preliminary.” Further, “whatever is presented today as universal in a globalized world has a local flavor to it which needs to be contextualized”.

The challenge then becomes one of the scientific community admitting to uncertainty, embracing it and sharing it with society, as we the people have to live with these scientific predictions and choices. Techno-scientific risk must be addressed at the same time as social risk. The sharing of uncertainty becomes an act of democracy “currently undergoing pressure to re-invent itself”; the need to let others in on professional knowledge is a long-standing concern in Nowotny’s work. While research contracts may channel limited resources in a more efficient way, they permit only a predetermined, and therefore limited, engagement with “the public, citizens and users” at the point when “citizen science” and open formats are showing their worth.

The awe of big data comes in for criticism here. “Even the most sophisticated algorithms extending predictions at aggregate level and the enormous increase in the accumulation of big data”, as well as advances in risk management, “cannot guard against surprises” – the 2008 financial crash being a case in point. “To be of wider usefulness to society,” Nowotny argues, “numbers and probabilities have to be accompanied by words.”

Her discussion of big data leads us inevitably to Google and its “self-appointed mission to organize the world’s information” via mass digitisation of books, largely so that they might then be analysed through ever more intelligent artificial intelligence systems. At the same time, there is a convergence between the digital and the biological “where biological becomes informatics and data are made to work as if… living”. Huge advances are being made in predicting the health of individuals based on their unique genomic make-up; soon personalised precision medicine will be designed for individuals based on probabilities.

In Nowotny’s experience, scientists work in a culture that embraces uncertainty, but what is less certain is what politicians, governed by deliverables and value, do with this uncertainty. Value, audits, quality assurance and performance culture are all mechanisms designed to control future outcomes and are all in some way performative: “Money, Aristotle observed, is the measure that enables equality between what is not really equal.”

Her reminder that “social processes” underpin even the most “dazzling” and technically sophisticated of models is timely, as is her excellent discussion of classification for the determination of value. It is here that I find myself wishing that her reading had extended into the field of feminism: Nowotny’s ideological stance, although definitely present, is not overt, and “how human action affects what has indeed become the societal condition of Nature” is clearly one of her major concerns.

“Learning to cope with uncertainty is one of the most precious cultural resources,” she observes. A key question she poses here, and one that has made a profound impression on me as I go about the business of setting up a new School of Architecture, is “How good are we in educating young people for uncertainty, while continuing to train them for certainty?” Indeed, her book would be worth buying solely for the insights it offers to those of us seeking to get our heads around this critical issue.

Although I came to this volume as an architect concerned with the lack of innovation in my profession, I cannot think of a discipline in which it would not be relevant, drawing as it does on fields as diverse as corporate finance, bioethics and archaeology, sending me into places that I never usually go and challenging all my preconceptions. Suddenly the idea of growing buildings doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

The Cunning of Uncertainty also offers an extremely useful grounding in the global context and history of research and development as we now know it in universities, encouraging reflection on the research contracts, which she describes as “metaphors”, held between researchers and their funding bodies. Informed, eloquent and compelling, it will certainly go on my reading lists. I predict that it will have significant impact, even if it may not be the kind articulated in the research excellence framework, and it might even make it into a few academic Christmas stockings. The odds are 2:1.

Flora Samuel is professor of architecture and the built environment, University of Reading, and an architecture research practice consultant.

The Cunning of Uncertainty
By Helga Nowotny
Polity, 220pp, £16.99
ISBN 9780745687612
Published 23 October 2015

The author

Author Helga NowotnyVienna in 1900, says Helga Nowotny, who was born and raised there, was a city  “in its greatest splendour; a time in which some – artists, intellectuals, writers – were building up facades, while others were busy tearing them down”. Today, she adds, it “has remained intellectually torn between adulation and biting criticism. I like the tension between these opposites and the ambivalence it produces.”

After some years abroad, in Zurich and in Brussels, she is now back in Austria’s capital, “but I continue to travel a lot. I feel very much a European and find it amusing when people in Britain speak about ‘Europe’ as another continent. My current lifestyle is incompatible with having pets (although in another life I once had a dog). My book is dedicated to my long-term partner, but we live and work in different countries.”

President of the European Research Council from 2010 to 2013, she now chairs the ERA Council Forum Austria, which advises the Austrian minister for science and research, and is professor emeritus in social studies of science, ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

As a child, Nowotny says, “Studying always came easy to me, and I had to invent activities in order not to be bored in school. On the whole, this was tolerated by my teachers. My parents always supported me. My mother taught me to be competitive and my father gave me the necessary self-confidence to enjoy it.”

She spent a year in Wisconsin while still a high-school student. “It was part of the American Field Service exchange students programme. It was a truly great experience for a 16-year-old European girl to become immersed in the American teenage culture of the Midwest.

“My US academic performance did not count for my school in Vienna (as US academic standards were considered inferior), so I was completely free to chose whatever courses I wanted. So, I took physics, American history and speech,” Nowotny says.

“I learned to play the saxophone, because I wanted to play in the school band. As I was also keen to learn other languages that the high school did not offer, it was arranged that I could take classes in French and Spanish at the local college. Where else outside the US, at that time, would all of this have been possible?”

Her later interest in sociology was very nearly derailed early on. “When I was still in the gymnasium, I went with friends who were already at the university to sample various fields of study, as I was undecided. I also attended a class in sociology – and it was so bad that it acted as a deterrent. Pragmatically, I then decided for law. It would allow me to move later in various directions. I should add that the study of law at the time included economics and a bit of history, both of which I enjoyed.” 

She read law at the University of Vienna, and recalls finishing “in record time with very good marks. I guess I wanted to show that it can be done, a bit like beating the system.” Her doctoral study was carried out in the US, at Columbia University. “There was no culture shock. I moved to New York when I was already a (very young) assistant professor in penal law and criminology at Vienna. Columbia gave me credit for the academic publications already on my CV. It would have been tempting to stay on in the US, especially in view of offers which I received even before finishing my PhD, but for personal reasons this was out of the question.” 

Her academic career has taken her around the world, and she observes that “to some extent academic institutions mirror the culture of the country”, although “top research universities (elite universities if you like) have much more in common with each other than with a non-elite university in the same country. This is reinforced by the current trend towards globalisation of higher education. It also increases the gap between the international top and the rest.”

Nowotny’s new book argues that “all knowledge production strives for certainty, but this certainty is always provisional. New knowledge will arise, supplanting and expanding what we already know. For basic research uncertainty is a powerful tool, and the only gateway into the territory of the yet unknown. Of course, basic research also seeks to produce knowledge that will stand up to peer review, validation and replicability in order to become certified – and hence certain – knowledge. This holds also for the humanities. Why else would scholars still work on the French Revolution or other ‘certain’ events in history?”

But are leaders as free to express uncertainty as scholars? When she led the ERC, Nowotny says, “I never had a problem admitting ‘I don’t know’ – provided one does not say it too often and out of context.”

What gives her hope? “Unlikely as it sounds, it is the human condition, the conditio humana, in all its diversity and with its in-built flexibility.”

Karen Shook

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